'My friend group's catchups are draining and stressful. How do I balance their problems with my wellbeing?'

The tragedy of the coronavirus pandemic is now drudgery, writes advice columnist Eleanor Gordon-Smith, but what you see as negativity might be respite for your friends

During the lockdown, my friend group has had regular Zoom calls to keep in touch. But they are invariably two-hour sessions focused on how terrible the lockdown is, how terrible the pandemic is, and how terrible every individual person is whom they see at work or in public. This is extremely draining and stressful to me. How do I balance the obligation I feel to listen to my friends’ problems with maintaining my own wellbeing?

Eleanor says: The novelty is wearing off at this point, isn’t it? Things are bad, they’ve been bad for a while, they’ll continue to be for a while longer. It isn’t “for now” any more. This is real time we’re losing.

If you’re like me, it’s only really handing you the bill now. Maybe it felt fictional or dealable-with for the first few months. Perhaps the bracing novelty of being in it together could supply you with some energy; it was a bad experience, but at least it was an experience. Now even the tragedy is drudgery. It’s the same walls, the same day, and the same deflated simulacra of normal life.

The problem is people have very different ways of dealing with that. Some people, like you, need to do anything other than talk about how bad things are. For others, talking about anything else feels like meeting someone bereaved and not asking how they’re doing; not only would it be a rictus-grin pantomime but it might be actively rude, it might be denying people an opportunity to connect about and share their suffering when that’s all they really want to do.

Try to divorce the observation that these people complain a lot from the thought that they’re in fact black holes of negativity, or that they’re approaching this the wrong way. It might be that what presents to you as negativity is in fact their only relief from it.

Perhaps they spend the rest of their days keeping it together for their family, their boss, the stranger on the street. Perhaps this moment of being able to take off the mask and just say how rottenly stinking they feel is something they look forward to all day. What feels to you like an unnecessary prolonging of the unpleasantness could be, for them, the only thing that interrupts it.

Thinking that way might help you feel less stressed by the experience, too. They aren’t necessarily making the case that everything is miserable, or asking you to agree with that case. They may just need a space where they can say how bad they feel without distressing or threatening others. So if you can think of what they’re doing as venting a feeling rather than stating a fact, it might seem less like they’re trying to argue against your carefully protected optimism.

Recognising the truth about what your friends need, instead of focusing on the ways they try to get it, might help you ask them for what you need. The difference doesn’t need to be who’s right and who’s wrong about how bad things are. It can just be a difference of what makes each of you feel most held.

After you’ve made room for them to feel bad, you can ask them to help you feel good. You can ask them to help tend to your little patch of hope. Not much will make you feel good in the middle of this monotony. At minimum, your friends should.

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Eleanor Gordon-Smith

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